5 ‘S’ecrets Of Engaged Social Leadership

A software technology company I consult with is in the middle of a sea change, a shift from one workplace culture to another. This change began when the company brought in a high-level technical executive from another company – not exactly a competitor, but a company in an adjoining market space. Only in tech, market spaces aren’t really independent with no overlap. There’s always the potential for a clash of personalities rather than a happy union. Unfortunately, it has not been graceful for my client. In fact, it’s been one giant stressful process and a wake-up call for the all of our teams involved in mopping up the mess.

The old workplace culture was cut-throat and intensely political, but everyone knew the rules – the employees had been socialized. The new Chief Technology Officer brought in his culture – one in which motives are obscured, and nothing is ever explicit for employees. Suddenly people started getting emails telling them their jobs had changed, and their staffs reassigned to new projects. Nothing was discussed, nothing communicated, nothing socialized. Now the company is hemorrhaging top talent, and the CEO is puzzled. This is good news for recruiters (more jobs to fill) but a bad scene for the company and it’s employer and employee brand. Even worse, a few “former” employees have been blogging about the changes and it’s not okay. This will make recruiting top talent much more challenging for this company in today’s socially connected world. It didn’t have to happen, but what might have prevented the chaos – social, engaged leadership – is not in the CTO’s skill set.

Social leadership demands a set of skills that help to insulate the companies being led from sudden, culturally-devastating change. Don’t get me wrong – change can be good, and it’s often necessary. My client’s company hired an outsider to change technical direction; that part’s normal. What the CEO didn’t anticipate – not because he is a bad person, but because he lacked certain key social skills – was the painful change in culture and the fallout of that change.

In my practice, I work with lots of leaders seeking to expand their teams and make their workplace culture attractive for both potential new employees and current ones; some are socially aware and engaged, some are socially tone-deaf and isolated from what’s happening both in the greater social networking landscape and within the walls of their companies. Both types of leaders can be successful, up to a point – the point where trust, loyalty, values and expectations affect financial performance and company growth.

Being a socially-engaged leader may not be an innate skill for many leaders, but it is increasingly necessary as the multi-generational workplace puts more strain on corporate cultures and social media is opening up channels to “what it’s really like to work at this company”.

Without further ado, here are five skills social leaders possess – and which detached leaders should add to their management repertoire:

1) Sensitivity to non-verbal cues. A skilled social leader does not rely on one form of communication, but practices all – verbal, written, non-verbal, viral, and so on. Being sensitive to non-verbal cues is difficult because it requires a leader to have a well-integrated personality – to understand where her issues start and stop. I’m not saying you have to be a paragon of mental health, but you do need to be able to shut off the noise in your own head long enough to read people and understand what’s going on with them (at a meta level, of course.)

2) Socially interactive. You don’t have to know everyone’s name or how many kids they have, but you do have to be adept at interacting at a social level. If your CEO says ‘Hi’ to everyone but his, her eyes say ‘Stay away.’ This person is not comfortable with social interactions and thus is unaware of how managers and employees are thinking, feeling and reacting.

3) A shared sense of value and purpose. People join companies for lots of reasons, but what’s more interesting is why they stay. They stay because they share the values, the purpose, the mission, and vision. If you’re a leader, and you don’t share your sense of the company’s value and purpose, you’ll be doing a lot of remedial recruiting.

4) Socially committed to a building an engaged community in the workplace. Okay, committed is not an S skill, but what I’m driving at here is the importance of social communities and social media in today’s world of work. Paternalistic managers, top-down leaders, sometimes have trouble with this skill, but it’s critical. Your company is no longer in a bubble; it’s in a social sphere where online communities can influence business results and your company reputation – even, perhaps especially, when they’re not your customers. Is anyone in your company tweeting, blogging or creating social community? Is it even encouraged? Are you blogging as a leader figure?

5) Sincerely interested in your employees, your social talent communities, your environment. You can learn some skills and fake others, but it’s tough to fake sincerity. I’m sure some will argue it doesn’t belong on this list since it’s a personality attribute, not a skill per se. But for me, sincerity is what makes the difference between a leader and a task manager. If you’re not sincere, you’ll do things which might make business sense but which will eventually backfire – as did the CEO I mentioned earlier. Bringing in new tech talent made sense, but neither the CEO nor the CTO valued sincerity or honest communication, and now the company is paying a heavy price.

Social leadership is not a management overlay on a toxic culture; it’s not a Band-Aid. It’s a way of thinking about business, and doing business, in a socially aware and engaged fashion using the power of social networks and communities to relay your personal leadership brand, your employer brand, and your employee brand. It’s how the world of work is today, and how it will be in the future. So engage! Make the move to socially-engaged leadership. No time like the present.

A version of this post was published on on 10/28/12

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